Never Finished

 

by Barbara Latham


 

I

might have sought to conquer what there was to know of ants, instead, for a time, a man became the object in my sights. I felt a need to understand him better than he did himself.
After turmoil I looked for scalpel sharp words to slice precisely and open Dominic to scrutiny. I also hoped to sever myself from the mess with him.
That was a while ago. I now have no belief there is such weaponry.
Rather I seem stuck intertwined with a man whose heart is a pig’s breakfast. (That much grew obvious and I wouldn’t want to be him, which is some relief.)
My attempts at making sense of Dominic’s behaviour may have helped but knowledge can’t undo.

When our headmaster put “knowledge is power” into every speech, it set girls sniggering, speculating as to his wife’s knowledge of his bedroom practise that she kept power over him.
Yet after nights of tears, at the mercy of intensity threatening to overwhelm, understanding seemed to promise giving me the upper hand. It didn’t, nevertheless it altered the lingering connection to Dominic. And determination to know more of him was probably one way to forgive myself.

He rings, once again inviting me and my partner to a party, to be another ex-lover rendered harmless by fitting round a core of his friends and current home life.
But that is not what I can be for him: Dominic continues as player in a past which still disconcerts.
He is far from the most beautiful or deserving man I tried to love. I wonder if I ever respected him. Yet there is no denying he stirred longing in me to its strongest pitch, and my body responds to him.
I say “no” to joining his celebration but agree on another lunch.

He was already seated as I walked in.
A first. He hates to wait. Some old, disturbing threat replays for him.
But this time, there he was, wearing majestic purple under a black jacket. A Bishop comes to mind though Dominic goes to church only for funerals. He knows a lot of people and makes it his business to do so becoming Dom to many, Nic to others.
Dignity is not his strong point but that rich cashmere polo beneath black looked impressive at first glance.
Only after I finished looking at the menu, I noticed the outline of his face, how the crisp line of dark contrast emphasised the shapeless. He is not a man who is well defined or confined, which has its own appeal.
Yet again I was seeing remnants of a shaken boy heading towards 55 and that vulnerability in him melts my flesh.
As usual he drank up attention and I wanted to give it.
These years there is rarely sexual urgency for him though, yearning for skin contact, I reach out to touch his face.
A wish for tenderness takes over.
We don’t mention Iris, my only sister, but something of sorrow softens us as we sit at lunch.
Other meetings with Dominic leave me churned to frustrated fury, which usually loosens to tearful gratitude for the more decent man in my bed.
However Dominic matters. My relationship and home shape a seemingly firm place, our walls are solid and inside we have every expected appliance and furnishing, yet Dominic wriggling round the edge is a reminder of darker desires and unreliability. Despite all the erotic is still alive in relation to him.

If he had murdered any of his many lovers Dominic might be of general interest, the “why” and “how” of his state of mind open for discussion. When he only broke my expectations of love, everyone in my new London life seemed to consider this minor, domestic drama. I should be modern, unlike my Great Aunt who never laughed after her fiancé was killed in war, and attempt the recipe of marching away from rejection.
I left my flat for work…
But where was I going? Which way? Indecision would have me backtracking, though the journey was straightforward.
I slipped and tripped too easily, then made a more spectacular fall.
(I recall, even at four, the outrage of falls and grazes, while Iris plopped over, nappy padded, with only a clap or a laugh.)
After I crashed down to concrete I lay in the dark, stunned, unable to make sense of how I got there.
I hadn’t realised anyone witnessed it but when I failed to move a woman finally came out.
I felt a flattened fool, reduced and exposed to enquiry.
I hobbled on the twisted ankle, convinced that in ending with Dominic I had permanently walked out on all desire.

A dream eludes me. It was alive as I woke, then slipped unnervingly just out of reach, like my now lost bright hopes. Even if barely recognised they shaped response to discovering fierce sexual attraction. This must be “IT” being my immediate assumption.
Passion was not territory where I had discrimination. I grew up absorbing that if taken over by strong force for a man, you married. Having flung off some small town ways as well as clothes for Dominic, I felt purified and stripped down; I was finally flowing with strong current. I didn’t see there might soon be excruciating rapids.
Nor did it occur to me that Dominic also hoped for conviction that this was “THE great love.”
He would have to wait and wait.
It’s conceivable that he will wait out a lifetime.
But after our first break I was not trying to see Dominic as he actually might be.
I remained in a haze of what I presumed and still wanted.

On hearing my sister was with Dominic, a year after I’d last seen him, I smashed replaceable plates and destroyed irreplaceable photos and the few letters I’d ever had from her.
She knew too much of what Dominic had meant to me. Like a child at Christmas I’d babbled over-excitedly to Iris and friends when I fell for him.
And I was still trapped in disbelief: how could he not want such potent lust?
I’d dreamt dramatic sexual punishments for him yet, after he slept with my sister, it was she who grew monstrous in my eyes.
Every piece from a lifetime of largely masked rivalry swelled to fix her as target. There would be no more family Christmas!
Once powerlessness and hurt settled on her, I was incapable of thinking, “my poor foolish sister has followed me into the bed of an older man for whom it will be unsafe to risk her heart, and she is as vulnerable as I was.”
I just cut, slicing her off. She had stepped over a line and there was no tolerance for competition going as far as that!
So I did not know when it ended and she did not turn to me, though I was the one who might have been able to tell her that you survive a shattering, despite certainty that you are left hovering on a precipice.

I dreamt of her though. In one she and I miss a bus in some country. We have to run chasing it. At the first remote village we are told “all hell is breaking out”, because armed forces, stationed nearby, had many desirable gifts. Protected girls were seduced, simply not comprehending these men could be just after sex, while they were seeking to love and be loved.
The dream did not make me worry Iris, too, had been drawn to a seemingly generous man and like me she was a romantic, unlikely to recognise that Dominic couldn’t just be given love.

Dominic attracts those who throw themselves into loving, then after it begins to feel too like a demand, he walks away; he can’t meet the big dream. He may long to feel as apparently reckless as the woman but what he does is turn stony.
Soon he is in a guilt cycle which helps no one. Apparently his mother alternated between shutting him out then putting him under huge pressure to adore her. And he continues the frequent use of an on/off switch. However it is an endearing quality that he is preoccupied with “his heart,” though his script barely changes. Over our recent lunch he tells the familiar response, worrying his current partner isn’t “the one”; as if we women are to cure him and none of us have done it.

When we re-met at my sister’s funeral, he had not been in touch with Iris since the beginning of the summer, three months before, while I had not seen her for two years.
Our lunches began: he felt crucial, as though we’d become irreversibly tied.
An unreturned message became gut acid, dissolving any sense of substance. Making an arrangement for coffee could rebound to eat away.
It was not a matter of sex. At that point there was no question of getting back into his bed. But determination to understand Dominic and his attraction for my sister, as well as myself, became my life raft.
When, after ten months, I stopped contact, it wasn’t that by then I’d reached any acceptance of the limits to understanding.
Perhaps I was tired of feeling hollowed out and as if everything depended on his letting me know that somewhere Iris’s passion, like my own, had truly mattered.
I criss-crossed between drive to get to the bottom of things, sure our shared mess was too dense with bloodlines for any amputation, back to despair over keeping one leaking corner of my heart open to this man.
I didn’t want him just as an enemy, but nor could he be a friend.
One day, while visiting my parents, it just seemed obvious I would not find respite from Iris’s death through intermittently seeing Dominic.
Only new life might repair.
Maybe it was already too late to find a reliable man who wanted a child with me but I longed to take back more of what I’d given Dominic.

Five years later, when Dominic got a new computer, he called. There was a file on his old one which the computer expert opened. It was put there at the end of September, five days before Iris’s death in Cornwall. He remembered, then, that she had been to his flat to collect some books and leave an unreturned set of keys. She asked Dominic not to be home but to leave her books by the door.
I had no idea she’d conceived his child let alone had it aborted and she could hardly ring our religious parents, who vehemently opposed taking an unborn life.
I now realise two friends Iris chose to confide in, having themselves had terminations of pregnancy, thought it only a matter of holding her hand through the unpleasant procedure.
Dominic, who somehow took for granted I knew, though he hadn’t mentioned it, paid generously for a private clinic where no questions were asked.
A probing doctor might have realised Iris was troubled.
No doubt Dominic sent an extravagant bouquet, as he did for the funeral twelve years ago, and he claims he looked after her over the following week, but he had no inkling of our mother’s preoccupation with attempts to have one more child, the much wanted boy, or the impact on us two growing girls of four, late and bloody miscarriages. Sometimes I wonder if our conviction we weren’t enough for her primed us for a man for whom our love could not be enough.
But that certainly isn’t the end of the matter. He remains a disturbing man, not to be expected to take what happened as seriously as I do, yet deeply implicated in the first hurt, where I also found old wounds, and for the addition of that later, almost unbearable one.
Seeing him exposes me to pain and just sufficient of the erotic pull Iris and I both found. If our contact felt more ordinary I doubt a friendship with Dominic would be worth the effort.
“How did you know it was love?” he asked recently. As if I could tell him, or he might be able to work out how to feel it himself. Yet both of us fell for him.

I continue to dream of her, many without sufficient narrative to gather in the fragments, but one remains sharp.
Iris and I need a room but there is only the basement and we are tired of the dank and dark, so are offered an alternative up very rickety, steep stairs with no hand rail. We dither, then see others coming down and as they climb a hand rail from nowhere rolls into existence alongside them.

My parents clung to belief that Iris’s fall was an accident. For them wilful destruction would be an even greater step into the forbidden than abortion.
There had been a landslide and Iris, walking late, didn’t have good enough light.
There was an open verdict.
I suspected she was, at least, reckless. Believing her life was broken after Dominic ended things, maybe she was driven to make that manifest.
Of course, for years I had no idea she put a file on his computer days before, although the piece inside the file is given an earlier date of 14/7.

14/7

Dear Ruth Suzanne,
There is something ridiculous about my current way of carrying on.
Did I leave food cooking?
Having to go back each time the front door is reached to check the cooker – the taps?
What’s been done? What left behind?

I should have said goodbye, here at this flat, before we left together.
I might have realised that, once in hospital, hygiene and efficiency would intrude to fix our roles.
But even after a rich farewell might I still have been left in useless longing to do something for you?
It’s true I couldn’t face solo, full responsibility, though it hadn’t sunk in that there would be nothing at all to do for you.
There is absurd temptation to look at baby clothes.
And a wish that battle could have stopped for a kiss between us.
Now I have nothing of you. A baby cut out can’t also be known.
Unfortunately that finality cannot impose itself everywhere.

There are startling dreams. One of screamed revenge on mother, who once expected to just smack the unsuitable out of her girls.
Rose used to be the one to share dreams but she probably doesn’t know you ever existed.
As for him, how could he protect against medical assault? Mine was the body subjected to intrusion, the uterus overpowered, sexuality punished.
He did not want to be a father.
For me, when contraception failed, you were a surprise satisfaction in the idea of a baby for Christmas; excitement flourished while it was too soon to have the test.
Only slowly did nausea, tiredness and tears drive it home that you weren’t a fairy to crown the tree, to be tissue wrapped carefully till next needed.
It became necessary to detach the glitter and my delight in you once he said he would be away for a long summer.
He could not return to me, let alone the two of us.

Of course there was relief that I need not know you anymore.
If anything had been absolute I might have been relentless and able to carry on with you, despite him, or ruthless enough to pull you out myself.
It’s easier to be a patient: you have only to fight away your contradictions and get to the hospital door.
Immediately inside a patient is not active, she does not destroy or even say goodbye.
It was routinely done and you became a termination.

Today my period eventually comes again, another letting go. I bleed into that other time and see you discarded in a sewer.
I never saw you: I knew you when I said “no coffee thanks” and ate pasta ravenously, and knew you through thick nausea and those few weeks when sleep insisted on claiming the day as well as night. I had seen your curled and naked size in glossed picture books.
I had you killed and unclaimed: left as rubbish. Yet you, whom I’d known, deserved at least a spade of earth. As children Rose and I buried pets and even dead baby birds.
This month the womb aches from life sliced off.
An open bloody wound leaves my flesh not firm about itself, though the resolve to deny you must have been more or less solid once.
I bit into disgust at breakfast toast, the jam viscous red, with darker clotted cherries.

But you came uninvited, to drain and exhaust: a greedy remorseless life, not to be born, when I could not find any hope.

That date, the fourteenth of July, is my birthday.
And the letter addressed to Ruth Suzanne uses names of the dolls we played with incessantly as children.
We each had an identical big doll, mine called Ruth, she called hers Suzanne.

•   •   •  

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